It’s hard to imagine but one of the most celebrated portrait painters in English history actually despised painting his rich clientele.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) very much preferred to do what he really loved which was landscape painting, but this wasn’t lucrative enough to support his family.
It was only during the final years of his life that he dedicated himself fully to painting the English countryside after decades of painting his wealthy patrons.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at The Honourable Mrs Graham or “Portrait of Mrs Mary Graham,” one of Gainsborough’s most famous paintings.
1. It was completed shortly after Gainsborough and his family moved to London
The career of Thomas Gainsborough started in his native Suffolk when he was still a young boy. He impressed everybody with the amazing portraits and landscapes that he drew.
He moved to London in the early 1740s to study art and this resulted in an apprenticeship to decorate the supper boxes at Vauxhall Gardens, the first project he ever worked on.
He moved to Ipswitch after he got married and had to paint portraits to make a living. The landscapes he loved to paint would never bring in enough money to support his family.
His artistic breakthrough came in Bath in the 1760s where he attracted the rich clientele whom he didn’t really like deep down.
By the early 1770s, he was already one of the most renowned portrait painters in England and he eventually moved to London in 1774.
He completed The Honourable Mrs Graham in 1777, shortly after he moved from Bath to London.
2. It depicts the daughter of a renowned British diplomat
The Portrait of Mrs Mary Graham is a full-length portrait of Mary Cathcart (1757-1792), the daughter of Charles Cathcart, 9th Lord Cathcart (1721-1776).
Her father was a Lieutenant-General in the British Army and became a renowned diplomat later in his career.
He had served as the British ambassador to the court of Catherine the Great of Russia shortly before this painting was completed between 1768 and 1772.
3. Mary had only recently been married at the age of 16
Mary Cathcart became Mrs Mary Graham at the age of 16 because she married Thomas Graham (1748-1843), the future 1st Baron Lynedoch.
This was a grand event because Mary’s older sister Jane also got married to John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl, making it a double wedding.
Graham was a Scottish aristocrat who had a successful career in the British Army during the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars between 1794 and 1807.
He lived a very long life and passed away at the age of 95, unfortunately, unlike his beautiful wife, as you’ll soon learn.
4. It caused quite a stir when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1777
The Honourable Mrs Graham was exhibited at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1777 and was one of the highlights of the event.
Mary’s beauty and elegant appearance were celebrated by everybody who laid eyes upon the painting. It instantly transformed her into a superstar of the late 18th century.
She was greatly admired for her beauty, but also for her gentle and sophisticated nature by everybody she subsequently met.
5. Gainsborough already painted Mary in another portrait just before
The full-length portrait of Mary wasn’t the first painting that Gainsborough completed of the young girl. He already painted her earlier in a half-length portrait.
It’s clear that Mary’s family was very impressed with this first commission because they instantly asked the English artist to paint her full-length portrait.
This painting was completed somewhen between 1775 and 1777 and is part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
6. Mary soon fell ill after this work was completed and never recovered
The backstory of this painting is very tragic. Mrs Mary Graham fell ill with Tuberculosis shortly after this painting was completed and struggled with her health for the rest of her life.
Things went from bad to worse quickly in the early 1790s and one of her doctors advised her to move to Southern France because the climate was more suiting for her.
She died on the way to her destination on June 26, 1792, at the age of 35, near the town of Hyères in the Provence region of Southern France.
Thomas Graham never remarried in the following 5 decades of his life and he never looked at the portraits of his wife again out of grief.
7. How big is The Honourable Mrs Graham by Thomas Gainsborough?
This amazing full-length portrait of the beautiful young girl is a life-sized work of art, something that makes it all the more impressive.
The Honourable Mrs Graham by Thomas Gainsborough is an oil on canvas painting that has dimensions of 237 × 154 centimeters (93 × 61 inches).
8. Where is Gainsborough’s famous painting located?
Thomas Graham ordered the painting to be kept in storage and he never unpacked it during his lifetime.
It was first exhibited at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857 and this marked the first time that someone laid eyes upon the work again.
The descendants of Thomas Graham bequeathed the painting to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh which had only recently opened in 1859.
Today, you can still admire this magnificent work of art at the most popular museum of fine art in Scotland.